The Buddha’s first teaching after attaining Enlightenment was on the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause, cessation and path. One component of the path to end suffering is Right Speech which means “understanding the consequences of what we say and how we say it.” (Geshe Tashi Tsering, The Foundation of Buddhist Thought: Part 1. The Four Noble Truths)
After having heard teachings, done extensive readings and reflecting on Right Speech, I have found a helpful Right Speech checklist. When I pause and remember to follow these before speaking, I often avoid causing misunderstanding, anger and hard feelings.

This 4-point checklist is:

1. Is it timely?  In the heat of the moment of an encounter or when the other person is closed to hearing anything, it is maybe best not to say anything at that time. It can be a good idea to delay speaking until the situation is safe or for a time when the message is more likely to be heard. And whenever a conversation starts with “When you said that 3 months ago…”, that is probably not good timing for bringing the issue up.

2. Is it true?  We are often quick to respond to something said or relayed to us before knowing all the facts. It can be problematic to respond when we are unable to see the different perspectives involved or before having all the information. This is a recipe for trouble. What am I responding to? Something incomplete and inaccurate. Or something already dealt with by another person.

3. Is it beneficial/helpful?  Is what I want to say actually helpful in some way? If the person isn’t going to be receptive to my unsolicited advice, maybe it’s best not to say anything. Should I tell a person what I heard from someone else about him? Consider – will that be helpful in some way for him? Does he really need to hear it? If not, let it go.

4. Is it kind?  Even with the best of intentions and with the other three factors being met, saying something in a harsh, uncaring, attacking, critical or unmindful way can defeat the whole intent of what I’m trying to say. This can result in miscommunication, misunderstanding, hurt or confusion, or inflame an already difficult situation.

A few years ago, I read an article where the author implemented the practice of Right Speech with her co-workers in a small office. Soon afterwards, the volume of conversation decreased significantly due to eliminating criticism of others, the backstabbing comments, idle chatter and gossip. People still talked, still communicated, but did so with the process of Right Speech in mind. The result was a lighter, happier and more positive work environment for all.

Speech is such an important part of our daily life. Taking the time to go through this 4-point checklist can save each of us from a lot of potential problems, misunderstandings, cross-communications, causing damage to relationships and creating anger and resentment. After quickly going through the checklist before speaking, we can craft a wiser response. Or sometimes the best response is to say nothing at all. What a beautiful Buddhist practice.

– Bob